Currency Creek Arboretum Eucalypt Research

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Eucalyptus Man
Earthbeat - ABC Radio National
22 May 2004
Presented by Alexandra de Blas


In the Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, 'Eucalyptus', the main character wants to grow every Australian species of eucalypt. This week on Earthbeat we travel to South Australia to meet a real eucalypt fanatic who is well on his way to achieving that aim.

The main character in the novel 'Eucalyptus' is a man with a peculiar but beautiful obsession. He wants to grow every Australian species of eucalypt, from scrubby mallee to forest giant, on his property.

That whimsical fictional idea has become a real life dream for one South Australian man. Dean Nicolle has established a eucalypt arboretum on his property at Currency Creek, not far from the mouth of the River Murray in South Australia.

Annie Hastwell caught up with him there to talk trees.

Annie Hastwell: I'm standing on a hillside south of Adelaide. The sea in the far distance, and the hillside with a particular significance for the whole of Australia, because it's here that Dean Nicolle grows just about every kind of gum tree it's possible to find in the whole continent. Now Dean, what's behind this, when did you start?
Dean Nicolle: I guess I started planting trees here, it was back in 1993, but I've been interested in eucalypts and plants in general since I was about 8, so since a very early age. And I've always wanted to grow or try to grow, every species of eucalypt there is, and that's around 1,000-odd species.
Annie Hastwell: So how unique is what you're doing here?
Dean Nicolle: I guess it's unique in that most arboreta, and an arboretum is a zoo of trees, so to speak, most arboreta have been set up in a bit of an ad hoc sort of way, trying to grow one of every species; whereas I've set this up in a bit more of a scientific manner, that is, growing more than one tree of every species and taking various data on growth rates and survival rates, flowering time, all that sort of thing. But I guess it's also unique in the number of species growing here. There's certainly more species growing on this one piece of land than anywhere else in the world.
Annie Hastwell: They're looking big and healthy, let's go and have a look at some of them.
Dean Nicolle: OK.

Reading from 'Eucalyptus': It was virtually an outdoor museum of trees. A person could wander among the different species and pick up all kinds of information and at the same time be enthralled and in some cases rendered speechless, by the clear examples of beauty. The diversity of the eucalypt itself was an education; the slightest movement of the head, there was always another eucalypt of different height, foliage and pattern of bark.

Dean Nicolle: I guess the thing is because there's about 6,000 trees growing on the property here of about 900 different species, it's difficult to walk past them all just in a couple of hours. Of course you'd need a few days here just to see them all.
This one here is quite interesting. It's probably the eucalypt with the largest fruits of all the eucalypts, or gum nuts.
Annie Hastwell: It's quite beautiful; it's very sculptural, isn't it?
Dean Nicolle: Yes, it's interesting. This species can have either red or yellow flowers. The seed from these four individuals here were taken off a red-flowering individual, but two have yellow flowers and two have red flowers, so there doesn't seem to be anything genetic there. But the fruit size varies from as big as this, down to match-head sort of size.
Annie Hastwell: Do you get snakes up here?
Dean Nicolle: Yes. As long as you're making a bit of noise you should be all right.
What we have here is a lignotuber, or a mallee root from a eucalypt. This particular specimen was about 12 years old, when it was dug up out of the ground, and you can see that the size of the lignotuber is quite massive compared to the size of the stem above the ground. And what it actually is, is just a mass of dormant vegetative buds, that when the top part of the tree is destroyed, either through fire naturally or from cutting it down like this one has been, those buds become active and are able to re-grow, so the tree can re-sprout after fire very rapidly. And lignotubers can get very massive in size over a number of generations, and certainly there are examples of individual eucalypts that have formed lignotubers up to 20 metres across, from just getting burnt down and then growing out again, again and again and again. And specimens like that are thought to be thousands of years old. They can form like mushroom rings, or spinifex rings as well.
Annie Hastwell: So the ultimately adaptable tree, really.
Dean Nicolle: They are, yes. They certainly can cope with fire very well, most species can in any case, and the lignotuber it's not unique to the eucalypts, but certainly most eucalypt species have adapted lignotubers to cope with fire as a means of survival.

Reading from 'Eucalyptus': With a boiled egg and a stand of textbooks in a knapsack, Holland criss-crossed his land, absorbed in identifying each and every eucalypt. Often it was necessary to send specimens of fruit and leaves to a world authority in Sydney, and seek a second opinion in other places. His affinity with eucalypts was both vague and natural, and before long he was having slow motion dreams about them.

Dean Nicolle: I'm not sure why I became interested in eucalypts as opposed to pines or willows or whatever, but I guess in terms of the diversity, there are so many species of eucalypts. There's not many plant groups where there's almost a 1,000-odd species within the one plant group. And just the sheer diversity; they vary from small shrubby bushes, up to knee-high, up to the tallest flowering plants in the world. And then there's all the diversity in flower colour, in bark types and leaf forms, and they're uniquely Australian as well, so I get to travel all over Australia to look at them, to collect them, to research them, which is really nice.
Annie Hastwell: And your father's pretty heavily involved in this; he went off to the desert with you when you were searching for the lost eucalypt. Is that something you've inspired him to do?
Dean Nicolle: I guess so. My dad's always keen to jump in the 4-wheel drive and go off looking at eucalypts with me. He drives and I basically tell him where to go and where to stop, so it works out really well. The two of us actually walked across the Gibson Desert in search of Giles' Mallee, which involved a walk of 120 kilometres carrying all our water, so yes, we go to great lengths to try and look at eucalypts and to do things that are a little bit different.
Annie Hastwell: Have you got a favourite, or is that an unfair question to ask someone like you?
Dean Nicolle: My favourite eucalypt species, I can't grow here at all, it's native to the northern Kimberley region in Western Australia. It has big balls of bright orange flowers and large waxy grey leaves, but because it won't tolerate temperatures below about 15-degrees Celsius, it will only grow in a glasshouse this far south.
Annie Hastwell: So we looked at Western Australia, South Australia, snow country, have we looked at anything that's specifically Queensland or that side of Australia?
Dean Nicolle: Yes well Queensland's probably got, it must be about 150 different species of eucalypts. Western Australia has probably got the largest number, about 500 different species, but that's partly of course because Western Australia takes up half of Australia. So the two main areas of eucalypt diversity in Australia are south-west Western Australia, the wheatbelt there, where there's been a lot of clearing gone on over the last 100 years or so, and also the coastal area of central New South Wales, where again there's been a lot of disturbance from urbanisation and also clearing. So the two main areas where you've got the greatest diversity of eucalypts, there's also a lot of rare species because that's where there's been a lot of settlement.
This species of eucalypt here is one of the yellow bloodwoods. It has this lovely flakey yellowish bark. There's a group of about 12 species of yellow bloodwoods, all except one species are from the central Queensland area, and they grow really well here on the sandy soils and it's the bark of the tree I think that is the outstanding feature of this species.
Annie Hastwell: That bark must have had a use in the past, it's incredible, isn't it, quite thick and flakey and soft-looking, almost a pile of it to sleep on would be quite nice, you imagine if you're out in the bush.
Dean Nicolle: Yes, you're probably right. The diversity in eucalypt bark, it's amazing. You can have the flakey papery barks like this, and you have the real rough hard barks, and then you have the completely smooth bark, like the lemon-scented gums behind us here, which is actually quite closely related to these yellow bloodwoods, but have a completely different bark type, where it's just completely smooth.
Annie Hastwell: This is 10 years on. What's it going to look like here 20 years on?
Dean Nicolle: I guess the trees will be a lot larger in general. I'm still planting out seedlings of a lot of different species, of species that are already growing here as well but from new areas. I'm not sure where my research will take me, but hopefully because the amount of data and information coming out of the arboretum here, the arboretum will keep going in some sort of format and it will be here for a long time to come, hopefully.
Jackie May: That's Dean Nicolle there from South Australia's Currency Creek Arboretum, and he was talking to Annie Hastwell. And thanks to Pat Moran for those readings from 'Eucalyptus' by Murray Bail. And you can look out for Dean Nicolle in an ABC-TV documentary, called 'From the Heart'. It's going to be screening at the end of next month.

Guests on this program:

Dean Nicolle
Currency Creek Arboretum
South Australia
Further information: Currency Creek Arboretum

Author: Murray Bail
Publisher: The Text Publishing Company

Presenter: Jackie May
Producer: Pauline Newman
Reporter: Annie Hastwell

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